Nearly 31 years after the Tao of Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼) first marched to remove the “evil spirits” — the nearly 100,000 barrels of nuclear waste placed on the island between 1982 and 1996 — from their homeland, justice is finally being served.
After an extensive investigation, the government has finally acknowledged the Tao had not given permission for a nuclear-waste storage site and on Friday last week, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced that the community would receive NT$2.55 billion (US$83.6 million) in compensation.
When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) visited the island in 2016, a Tao elder told the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) that government officials told the locals that they planned to build a pineapple cannery and asked the elders, who could not read Mandarin, to sign the documents allowing the nuclear dump.
Other versions say it was a fish cannery, but that is beside the point: No matter what the pledge was, the locals insist that they were kept in the dark.
Several studies have corroborated the claims. “The Mobilization of Orchid Island’s Anti-nuclear Movement” (蘭嶼反核廢場運動的動員過程分析) states that the government “never informed the Tao people of its plan and only started communicating with locals under public pressure.”
“A Study of Public Participation in Policymaking” (政策的制定與民眾參與之研究) said that “when construction started, nobody was clear on what was being built ... none would have guessed a nuclear waste facility.”
A statement on state-run Taipower Co’s Web site says that the Atomic Energy Council never used the word “cannery” and clearly stated from the beginning that it would be a nuclear waste storage facility in its reports to the Taitung County Government, which administers the island.
Developers also put up signs at the construction site specifying the nature of the project, Taipower said, adding: “The story that the Atomic Council tricked the people of Orchid Island into thinking that it was a cannery is just a rumor.”
However, it does not say whether anyone bothered talking to the villagers and whether they fully understood the implications of what was being built.
A report on Minister Without Portfolio Lin Wan-i’s (林萬億) investigation into the issue, released in December last year, does not mention any cannery either, but it does state that the decision to dump nuclear waste on the island was made in secret.
While the local government was informed about the plan as early as 1975, most residents knew nothing of it until construction began in 1980, and were indeed kept in the dark of its purpose until operations began in 1982.
Even then, Taipower officials tried to reassure residents that the waste was harmless.
The cannery story seems to have stemmed from miscommunication: The report says that locals were not allowed near the construction site — which renders the signs mentioned by Taipower useless — and came up with the idea that it was a cannery from what they gleaned from their conversations with construction workers and contractors.
Nevertheless, it was still a huge injustice to the Tao and the government is finally owning up to its mistake, continuing its work on transitional justice.
The next step, the report says, is to look into Taipower’s claim that the waste has not harmed the island’s residents, but if that is not the case, help them obtain better medical access.
While the compensation is a significant move, the ultimate goal is the removal of nuclear waste from the island, which has been delayed due to a lack of a permanent site. The long wait continues, but at least the people of Orchid Island can savor this victory.
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